Palio is unique. Whatever the definition you give to it, it will be incomplete. Palio is more than a horse race, more than an ancient tradition, much more than a mere sport or competition between the city districts, and unlike the common belief, is not at all just a tourist attraction. Some say it is a social glue that keeps 17 Sienese contradas (districts) united as one, in their diversity and contrast.
Let us start with a horse race. It takes place in the main square of Siena, Piazza del Campo, twice a year, on July 2 and August 16. And starting from here, there is an exception. We like to celebrate a lot, so sometimes the people of Siena request an “extraordinary” Palio, which can happen at any time of the year, limited only by the weather conditions. The Palio is run bareback by professional jockeys that the Contradas hire every time, based on their strategy. Unlike the jockeys, the horses, once the list of 10 is defined, are given to the Contradas through a kind of lottery with very complex rules. Why only 10? Although the Contradas are 17, only 10 of them participate in the Palio, by rotation.
We say that the Palio lasts four days, from June 29 to July 2 and from August 13 to August 16. The preparation lasts much longer, and “Palio is in the air” from the end of May, with the “extraction of Contradas”, another lottery that defines who will run in July. But during the four days, there is continuous celebration and anxiety.
Anyone visiting Siena those days will probably be overwhelmed by a unique sensory kaleidoscope of particular colours and noises, the songs of the contradas, the historical parades with their flags and the “berebem nannà” of the drums, all surrounded by the breathtaking and unique beauty of the medieval city.
On the first day, the horses are given to the Contradas that bring them to their stables, unbreakable maximum security “fortresses” that only the staff of the Palio can access to take care of the horse. Then there are six trial races during which the jockeys and horses get used to each other and make a duo that, at least as everybody hopes, can win. The main race, the Palio, takes place on the fourth day and lasts only 75-80 seconds, but for every inhabitant of Siena, it is an everlasting moment.
Remember that the horses are the main heroes: even if the jockey falls and the horse arrives first, it wins! And there is no silver or bronze medal: only one will celebrate. The celebration begins immediately after the victory. The members of the victorious contrada receive a silk hand-painted banner, the “drappellone”, and bring it to the church of Provenzano (for the July Palio) or to the Cathedral (in August) to sing the Te Deum of gratitude. From this moment on, every occasion will be good to remind the city of the victory conquered, until autumn, when a big gala dinner is organised for thousands of contrada members. And here, again, the place of honour is reserved for the victorious horse, a truly admired hero.
If you’re willing to attend the Palio, you may want to prepare for your trip in advance. Finding a last-minute accommodation opportunity is hardly possible.
The race itself can be seen from the inner circle of the square, admission is free, but you should arrive well in advance, before 5 pm (the official start of the race is at 19.30 in July and at 19.00 in August, but the duration is unpredictable). We suggest consulting the entrance schedules on the website of the municipality of Siena. Consider that children under 12 years old aren’t allowed in for safety reasons.
In the outer circle, along the palaces, there are temporary tribunes which can be accessed by buying a ticket in advance (we suggest doing it several months before the Palio).
The windows and the balconies of the palaces, surrounding the square, are also an option. They are generally more expensive but offer a better view of the race from the above. Some of the balconies and most of the windows also give you access to the restroom, some drinks and snacks, which is not possible in the tribunes.
You can also watch the trial races. These rehearsals are open to everybody, the tribunes are reserved for the contrada members, but the inner circle and some of the windows are available for visitors.
Our agency, Viaggi Senesi, can help you organise your trip.
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